What would you do if you knew you were beloved, cherished beyond measure? I would hope that we all have had that experience – if not now, then at some point in the past. Of course, because we are human beings our expressions and experiences of love frequently get watered down or tangled up. This doesn’t happen because of bad intentions usually, but because we get tired, worn out, confused, overwhelmed with our own neediness; and so we either can’t make the effort to give love, or we have a hard time receiving it.
So, I’ll ask it again: what would you do is you knew you were beloved – full stop? What difference would that make to you, to the way you live with yourself, to the way you “live and move and have your being in the world”?
We know that babies don’t make good progress in their developmental milestones of crawling, walking, exploring, relating to others if they don’t have a sense of security in their parents’ love and care. That love gives them confidence and support to try something new – even if it seems daunting and scary. The love of parents, family, and caretakers surround and support the child. Not only are they encouraged and cheered in their progress, but they are held and given time to re-gather their feelings and their psyche until they are ready to be brave and try the next new or difficult thing. Without this kind of unconditional love, a child’s development is harder and slower.
What would you do if you knew you were beloved by God?
Like so much of Mark’s Gospel, this morning’s passage telling us of Jesus’ baptism is direct and to the point. John, the one often referred to as “The Fore-runner”, the Baptizer, is out east of Jerusalem in the Judean wilderness, preaching and calling people to repentance, to be baptized in the Jordan River as a sign of their preparation to welcome God’s next great act – the appearance of one more worthy than John was. And people came. They had a sense that they needed a new beginning; they symbolically needed to put their past separation from God behind them; they had to put away their old expectations so they could get ready to accept the new.
In going out into the wilderness to be baptized by John, the people were re-enacting (at least on some level), the story of the Exodus when God led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, and into the wilderness where they would come to know God’s love, and character, and purpose. The wilderness – no matter where it was – has ever since been a symbol for that Exodus experience; a place to meet God in profound and life-changing ways.
Jesus came too, to be baptized in the Jordan. And as he was coming up out of that River Jordan water, he saw the “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And he heard God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
As we picture this scene in our minds we need to be clear that the heavens opening, and the dove descending, and the voice sounding was not from far-off above the earth’s atmosphere. The people of New Testament times – including John and Jesus, and Mark – would have understood this experience to be filled with immediacy. God was very close by, just beyond sight normally, almost as if in the next room. The opening of the heavens would have been like opening a sky-light in your house, and letting light and fresh air pour in.
What came to Jesus in that theophany, in that revelation, was the power of God’s love. The baptism was the start of his public ministry, and Jesus was going to need every ounce of awareness of being beloved, of being suffused with the Holy Spiirt, of being energized with divine love for him to be able to carry out his vocation and mission over the next three years.
John baptized with water for repentance; the Holy Spirit baptizes with the power of love.
Today is one of the four great baptismal feast days of the Church, and we will be renewing our baptism in a few minutes. This is one of those days that – if we could – we would have a baptismal candidate. And most often that person to be baptized would be a baby, perhaps dressed in a white christening gown. It would be a wonderful celebration for the family and the parish, a blessing of the child as we marked his or her entry into the life of Christ and the life of the Church; a time of welcome and joy.
But sometimes in the midst of christening a young child the emphasis gets puts in the wrong place and we think about how beautiful the baby is, about the happiness of the event, about the family celebration. All of that is true, but…we can miss the life-changing nature of baptism. We can overlook the high calling of following Jesus, we can let our attention be diverted from the high stakes of Christian discipleship. For those of us who were baptized as children it is important for us to be reminded from time to time of the true nature of baptism – the holy work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.
For baptism is connected to the Exodus story. It is our being rescued from bondage of sin and death, through the waters so that we may be truly free to love, worship, and serve the Lord our God, just as much as it was for the Israelites going through the Red Sea.
Last week I invited us to begin to ask ourselves who we wanted to be – as Christian people and as a church – when we finally come through this pandemic. More importantly, I invited us to ask who we thought God wanted us to be. And I suggested that preparing to renew our baptismal vows, here at the beginning of the new year, was a good way to start that kind of reflection and discernment. I sent out the five baptismal promise questions for you to think and pray about.
In the intervening days, we have experienced an horrific and violent attack on our Capitol that will take time to fully absorb and understand. But what we do know is that even though there were some religious symbols displayed in the crowd, this was not the Way of Jesus. The vast majority of symbols and slogans represented ideologies and movements that are hate-filled and death-dealing.
So it is even more important that we can gather here today and re-commit ourselves to living the Way of Jesus, to being Christian disciples.
Take a moment and think about one of those promises in the Baptismal Covenant, or one of those phrases in the Apostles’ Creed that might have spoken to you, might have resonated with you. That is very likely the area that God would like you to focus on – at least for now. Ask yourself if there is something you can do or learn or practice that will make your discipleship stronger, truer, clearer.
And if it seems like a daunting task, it probably will be – and that is where the love comes in. The answer to each baptismal promise is: I will, with God’s help. The help that God gives us is the power of love, the power of God’s love – for us, in us, through us.
Jesus stepped into those waters of baptism and came up from the river knowing to his core that he is God’s beloved. Our baptism fills us with the knowledge that we, also, are God’s beloved – even though we have to be reminded over and over and over again, just like that little child taking a few tottering steps and then needing to look over their shoulder to Mom or Dad for reassurance and encouragement, remembering that they are loved.
We are beloved by God. We are called to a life of worship and service that requires courage, truth, and humility; and we will do so “with God’s help”, with the power of love.
Let us pray.
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. ~ Covenant Prayer from the British Methodist Church
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of our Lord
January 10, 2021